Man’s Search for Meaning


The Life and Work of Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was Jewish and lived in Austria. Because of this, he felt the effects of the spread of Nazism from an early age.

When the Second World War began, his brother, Walter, was captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. Later his sister, Stella, fled to Mexico.

His situation became more and more precarious, so he requested an immigration Visa from the United States. It was granted, and he had the chance to flee across the Atlantic Sea.

His conscience, however, didn’t let him.

Frankl anguished over the possible fate of his parents. He was torn between pursuing his academic work on fertile soil in the US and leaving them behind.

He agonized over the right decision for so long he thought the answer could only be provided through divine intervention, until one day it was.

One morning Frankl saw a piece of marble on the table and asked his father about it. He had picked it from the rubble of what once was the largest Synagogue in Vienna before the national socialists burned it to the ground.

A gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the stone. It represented one of the Ten Commandments, and Frankl asked his father which one.

“Honor thy father and thy mother,” he said, “that thy days may be long upon the land.”

The answer to his excruciating dilemma was apparent at last. Frankl let his visa lapse and assumed the responsibility of being a good son.

He made a choice.

Life in the Concentration Camps

On25 September 1942, Viktor, his newlywed wife, and his parents were forced to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. There Frankl served as a general practitioner in a clinic.

His skills in psychiatry soon proved useful, and he was allocated to the psychiatric care ward, establishing a unit to offer solace and support to depressed camp newcomers for the shock and grief suffered at the hands of Nazis.

On 19 October 1944, Frankl and his wife Tilly were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. They were separated, and he heard nothing more from her until after the war. His mother was sent to the gas chambers. His father Gabriel had died of hunger, greatly diminished by respiratory illnesses some months before.

After Auschwitz, Frankl was moved to Kaufering, a camp affiliated with Dachau, where he spent five months working as a slave labourer. In March 1945, he was transferred to Türkheim, a so-called rest camp, also affiliated with Dachau. There he worked as a physician until 27 April, when American soldiers liberated the camp.

His wife, who had been moved to Bergen-Belsen, also gained her freedom. Tragically, she was trampled to death in the stampede that occurred when all the newly liberated prisoners ran to freedom.

This period of difficult confinement and forced labour, along with the constant hunger and exhaustion, the reign of daily terror, and death’s lurking presence, sparked great reflections for Frankl.

Even under such desperate conditions, he managed to hold his composure and transcend the efforts of Nazism to degrade his existence into a mere number tattooed on his forearm.

By observing his fellow inmates, he exploited the sole thing the concentration camp had to offer; a rare chance to dive into the psychological ramifications of imprisonment on the human psyche.

Frankl distinguishes three phases to the inmate’s mental reactions:

  1. the period following his admission,
  2. the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine,
  3. the period following his release and liberation.
First Phase: Auschwitz

Shock is the symptom that characterizes the first phase and what could be a greater shock than coming across the name that stood for all that was horrible as your destination sign.

“With the progressive dawn, the outlines of an immerse camp became visible: long stretches of several rows of barbed wire fences; watch towers; search lights; and long columns of ragged human figures, grey in the greyness of dawn, trekking along the straight desolate roads, to what destination we did not know.”

Little did they know, the real shock had yet to come.

A little movement of a man’s finger shouldn’t be enough to determine the fate of thousands of people; but that was the cruel reality the prisoners had to face upon their arrival at Auschwitz, even unknowingly at the time.

The SS officer was pointing leisurely to the left or the right with an attitude of careless ease as if one of the two directions didn’t mean certain and agonizing death in the gas chamber. Those who were sent to the left were marched from the station straight to the crematorium.

Frankl learned the sinister significance of the finger later that day when he asked the whereabouts of a friend, and someone pointed to the ominous black smoke coming out of a chimney.

The last shreds of hope and the illusion of reprieve so far everyone nourished shattered like glass, but it had already begun to crack earlier that day, when the SS officers, under the threat of violence, had stripped them of every reminder of their previous life.

Naked and shorn, the inmates were left with nothing except their bare bodies.

However, Frankl would realize soon enough that everyone was still in possession of something way more valuable than clothes or belongings; something that could never be taken away.

Although, not yet.

For the moment being, like everyone else, he was relieved what dripped from the sprays was real water…

Second Phase: Kaufering & Türkheim

Sometimes it is an appropriate response to reality to go a bit insane, or in Frankl’s words: “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.”

As the inmates transitioned from the first to the second phase, they deployed different defence mechanisms.

The prisoners stopped feeling disgusted by the ugliness that surrounded them and did not avert their eyes any longer. Their feelings were blunted, and they watched unmoved. That was the phase of apathy. The dying and the dead had become such commonplace sights that they could not move anyone anymore.

The inmates didn’t have the luxury to show sympathy since all efforts and emotions were focused solely on one task: preserving one’s own life.

“On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles — whatever one may choose to call them — we know: the best of us did not return.”

However, Frankl noticed that in many occasions weren’t those of a robust nature with the best chances to endure the hardships of the camp, but the sensitive and delicate people who were used to a rich intellectual life.

They were able to retreat to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom and so the harm to their inner selves was less in relation to the pain they suffered physically.

It was this kind of introspection and mind-wandering that helped Frankl understand that if they were to withstand their suffering, they had to attach a meaning to it.

“Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method, I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past.”

Frankl realized he wasn’t the only one engaging in this challenging endeavour. He quickly discovered that many of the inmates, instinctively, were committed in the constant struggle of finding a meaning to their suffering.

However, it required immense strength and a considerable amount of conscious effort on their behalf to force their mind to the task, since it was easy, perhaps even justifiable, for their inner moral selves to fell victim to the camp’s degenerating influences.

What was required by the inmates was a fundamental change of attitude towards life. It was crucial for them to realize what mattered wasn’t their expectations, but what life was putting in front of them: a test to prove worthy and rise above the circumstances.

The man of the concentration camp had to accept that his destiny for the moment being was to suffer. The task at hand was his to fulfil and his alone. His unique opportunity lied in the way in which he bore his cross. In right decision and right conduct, that was where the meaning in his suffering could be found. One could ignore the challenge and vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners, but one could also make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances — to choose one’s own way.”

Humour was a great ally in this battle. It was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. Laughter at the face of hardship means you are up to the task, that you are ready to handle everything that comes into your way, but also helps you detach from the situation and rise above it. It was a protest and a sign of bravery. To develop a sense of humour, even when suffering is omnipresent, to see things in a humorous light, essentially, is mastering the art of living.

So a radical change of perception was critical to surviving the brutal conditions of the camp, but hunger, disease, and fatigue still threatened the inmates. The biggest threat, however, remained the absence of a purpose, a reason to continue, a future goal to look forward.

Frankl gives the example of an inmate whose reason for living was based on what he thought to be a prophetic dream about the date when the camp would be liberated. He grew ever more excited as the date neared, but when the expected day came, and nothing happened, he became delirious and lost consciousness, dying the day after that.

What eventually killed him was losing hope.

Any inmate who had lost faith in his future was doomed. He let himself decline and slowly perish. So every attempt to help a fellow inmate had to aim at giving him strength by pointing out to him a future goal, but with no expectations attached. That was the tricky part.

Prisoners had to accept life as it came, and so life should be seen as a responsibility to get through its struggles with integrity and dignity.

Third Phase: Life after Captivity and War

That was how the inmates managed to survive — along with the aid of luck — with a big part of their souls still intact till the morning when the white flag was hoisted above the camp gates.

The tired inmates reluctantly ventured a few steps out of the camp, looking at each other with big question marks in their eyes.

No one could grasp the fact that freedom was theirs at last. For years they dreamed about it only to wake up again back in the horrors of the camp; thus no one could trust reality. The word freedom had been said so often during the years of captivity that when it came, it had already lost its meaning.

The sudden decompression of all the emotional distress took in its turn a toll on the fragile disposition of the now liberated inmate, deforming his sense of righteousness.

The inmates felt they had every right to abuse their freedom. They justified their behaviour by their own terrible experiences. They were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed. They had forgotten a commonplace truth.

“No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”

What had the most detrimental effect on the liberated prisoner’s character was the disillusionment of returning to his former life. The prisoner stayed alive because he was shown something to look forward to in the future, perhaps a human being that awaited their return, but the future had betrayed them.

“In the camp, we believed that we had reached the lowest point — and then, when we returned, we saw that nothing has survived, that that which had kept us standing has been destroyed, that at the same time as we were becoming human again it was possible to fall deeper, into an even more boundless suffering.”

Since their struggle was over, they believed life would only be better from now on, but the truth is life never stops putting you to the test. Every waking moment and hour, your duty remains to be the best man you can and Viktor Frankl tried zealously to meet these high standards throughout his entire life.

School of Logotherapy

Frankl’s most significant contribution and legacy was his new approach to psychological healing. He named it logotherapy from the Greek word logos (λόγος) which translates to either reason or speech. Both of these qualities or abilities are the fundamental tools humans use to ascribe meaning to existence.

Frankl, especially after what he went through, firmly believed that meaning to one’s life is the most powerful motivational force anybody could have.

He wrote that we can find a meaning to life in three ways. The first is changing the attitude we have towards unavoidable suffering.

“When we are no able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Frankl gives the example of a woman who was admitted after she failed to commit suicide. She was a mother of two, but her younger son died, leaving her alone with the older one who was crippled.

The mother was suffering from depression, but Frankl eased her mind by reminding her that if it weren’t for her care, her son would be abandoned at a filthy institute deprived of his mother’s love. His calm words managed to shift the woman’s perspective. She realized that she still held significant meaning to her life — to be a mother.

In Bed, The Kiss – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Love is another potent source of meaning to people’s lives.

Viktor Frankl held the image of his wife, Tilly Grosser, closely throughout his captivity. She wandered in his thoughts and kept him company while he worked — the fond recollection of her shielded his heart like armor against the camp’s efforts to break it and kept him going.

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

The third and perhaps the most obvious way of attaining a life of meaning is by creating a work or by doing a deed. In times of peace and prosperity, Frankl noted that people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means, but no meaning; and man does not live by welfare alone.

So he proposes that one must find their true calling or at least a vocation of their taste coming in the shape of a discipline perhaps — like writing or art — or the form of a purpose. For Frankl, this was his scientific manuscript that the guards had destroyed and wished to rewrite it and share his knowledge to the world.

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather a striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not a discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

The majority of people have at least an idea of what it is they want or should do with their life, but many don’t seize the opportunity to actualize their callings for reasons that vary. Those who dare to take on the obligation, though, will ensure a life of fulfilment.

A person endowed with a gift or talent provided generously by nature is also burdened with the responsibility to act on it and share its fruits with the world.

“The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is, and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

My Take

Frankl owed a certain deal of his strong moral compass and spiritual awareness that helped him to cope to his upbringing. He suggested that everyone in the camp had the capacity to choose how to respond but not everyone had his education, his mentors or his parents.

I believe it is important to note that Frankl grew up in a tranquil home and enjoyed peaceful infancy. The decision he made to stay with his parents and risk his almost certain demise can only tell that much about the kind of parents they were.

Frankl describes it better in his own words with a story from when he was five. He awoke in bed, without opening his eyes, and felt an immense sense of happiness and peace. Upon opening his eyes, he saw his father sleeping by his side.

That was unconditional parental love, and that kind of love chisels the greatest of men.